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California's quality-blind layoffs law harms teachers and students

Opinion

Factors related to job performance -- classroom management skills, the teacher's attendance and annual performance evaluation rating -- should be taken into account rather than length of service.

March 24, 2010|By Timothy Daly and Arun Ramanathan

Over the last several weeks, in what has become a dismal rite of spring, nearly 30,000 teachers throughout California received layoff notices. Knowing how crucial teachers are to student success, you might wonder how schools make the difficult decision of which teachers to cut. After all, if layoffs are unavoidable, you would think that it would be in the interest of everyone to keep the best teachers and cut those who are least effective.

Unfortunately, the only tool that California schools can use to make these decisions is a calendar. That's because of an outdated state law that prevents schools from considering anything other than how long a teacher has worked in the school system to decide who stays and who goes. Schools have no choice but to ignore teacher quality. Newer teachers are always laid off first, regardless of how well they do their jobs.

The result? Even top-performing teachers may be cut. Last year, "teacher of the year" award winners in Santa Barbara, San Diego and Los Angeles were among those who received layoff notices.

Forcing schools to fire some of their best teachers while keeping less effective teachers is just one of many perverse side effects of California's quality-blind layoffs law. Most notably, this approach also disproportionately harms schools that serve the poorest students, English-language learners and students of color, who are more likely to have newer teachers.

What's worse, evidence from other parts of the country suggests that teachers themselves do not support these rules. When the New Teacher Project recently asked 9,000 teachers in two large urban districts for their opinion, nearly 3 out of 4 said that factors other than seniority should be considered in layoff decisions. Even among teachers with 30 or more years of experience, a majority supported a more quality-based approach.

If teachers themselves don't support seniority-driven layoff laws, why keep them on the books? Teachers unions often argue that there's no other way to conduct layoffs fairly and to protect teachers against favoritism by principals. They fear that school districts would take aim at teachers with the most seniority because often they are also the highest earners. But clearly delineated guidelines and objective criteria for deciding layoffs could prevent such abuses, and federal and state employment laws already bar administrators from discriminating on the basis of factors such as age or ethnicity.

There's a better way. When teachers were asked what should go into layoff decisions, they favored three factors related to job performance -- classroom management skills, the teacher's attendance and annual performance evaluation rating -- more than length of service.

These responses point the way toward a quality-based layoff system that can earn teachers' support. This system would use a score card that gives the greatest weight to these three measures of performance, while also including factors such as experience and out-of-classroom responsibilities. Teachers' scores would be based on their point totals in each category across multiple years to ensure the most accurate picture of their achievements. Those with the lowest point totals, not just the least seniority, would be subject to layoff first.

This kind of quality-based system has many benefits. It recognizes that experience matters -- but so do skills, talent and results. It would help reduce the burden of layoffs on high-need schools. It uses data that most districts already track. And it rests on a fair and transparent scoring system that resists manipulation and prohibits schools from simply firing the highest-paid teachers to save money.

Most important, quality-based layoff rules would allow schools to protect their best teachers at a time when great teachers are more important than ever.

Sadly, given California's dire budget situation, layoffs are likely to continue. But that is all the more reason the Legislature needs to give school districts the tools to make fair and rational decisions about who is laid off.

Many states and districts are already moving to adopt quality-based layoff systems, including Arizona. The Los Angeles Teacher Effectiveness Task Force, which includes teachers and is chaired by Ted Mitchell of the State Board of Education, recently urged California to follow suit.

Federal policy supports a change as well; by ending quality-blind layoffs, the state will not only do the right thing for students but also may establish a cornerstone for its second-round application for federal Race to the Top funding.

There's still time to save the jobs of the state's best teachers, but only if the Legislature acts now. With the prospect of additional budget cuts on the horizon and so many children's futures at stake, California can't turn a blind eye to its layoffs law any longer.

Timothy Daly is president of the New Teacher Project. Arun Ramanathan is executive director of the Education Trust-West.

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